Okay, I'm not like a car fanatic or anything-but the guitar riff from "Bad to the Bone" started playing in my head.
"Wheels," I said. "Excellent."
The Munstermobile came gliding up to us and stopped, still dripping water, and another security guy got out of it, left the driver door open, and came around to open the passenger door for Molly.
I touched Molly's shoulder to stop her from moving to get in immediately, and spoke to her very quietly. "How much do you trust your friend Mr. Etri?"
"Etri might oppose you," Molly said. "He might break your bones. He might cut your throat in your sleep or make the ground swallow you up. But he will never, ever lie about his intentions. He's not a friend, Harry. But he is my ally. He's good at it."
I wanted to say something smart-ass about not trusting anyone who lived anywhere near the Faerie realms, but I held back. For one thing, svartalves take paranoia to an art form, and I had no doubt they would be listening to everything everyone said on their own property while not in private quarters. It would have been stupid to insult them. For another thing, they had an absolutely ironclad reputation for integrity and neutrality. No one crossed a svartalf lightly-but on the other hand, the svartalves rarely gave anyone a good reason to cross them, either. That garnered them a boatload of respect.
They also had a reputation for rigid adherence to promises, to bargains, and to the law, or at least to the letters it consisted of. "What are the terms of your alliance?" I asked, walking around the car toward the driver side.
"I get the apartment," Molly said. "I mean, it's mine. I own it. They handle any maintenance for the next fifty years, and as long as I'm on their property, they consider me to be a citizen of their nation, with all the rights and privileges that entails."
I whistled as we got in and shut the doors. "And what did you give them for that?"
"Their honor. And there might have been this bomb problem I handled for them."
"Hell's bells," I said. "Look at you, all grown-up."
"You have been," Molly said. "All day."
I tried not to give her a guilty glance as we pulled out. "Um."
"I feel it, you know," she said. "The pressure inside you."
"I've got it buttoned down," I said, and started driving. "Don't worry. I'm not going to let it make me . . . take anything away from you."
Molly folded her hands in her lap, looked down at them, and said in a small voice, "If it's given, freely offered, you can't really take it away. All you're doing is accepting a gift."
Part of me felt like something had torn in my chest, so deep was the ache I felt at the hope, the uncertainty in the grasshopper's voice.
And another part of me wanted to howl and attack her. Take her. Now. It didn't even want to wait to stop the car. If I went purely by the numbers, there was no reason at all not to give in to that urge-except for the car crashing, I mean. Molly was an adult woman now. She was exceptionally attractive. I'd seen her naked once, and she was really good at it. She was willing-eager, even. And I trusted her. I'd taught her a lot over the years, and some of that had been extremely intimate. Master-apprentice relationships were hardly unheard-of in wizarding circles. Some wizards even favored that situation, because on the spooky side, sex can be a whole hell of a lot more dangerous than recreational. They regarded the teaching of physical intimacy as something as inextricably intertwined with magic as it is with life.
It's possible that, from a standpoint of pure, unadulterated reason, they might even have a point.
But there was more to it than reason. I'd known Molly when she was wearing a training bra. I'd hung out in her tree house with her after she'd come home from high school. She was the daughter of the man I respected most in this world and the woman whom I least wanted to cross. I believed that people in positions of authority and influence, especially those in the role of mentor and teacher, had a mountainous level of responsibility to maintain in order to balance out that influence over less experienced individuals.
But mostly, I couldn't do it because Molly had been crushing on me since she was about fourteen years old. She was in love with me, or at least thought she was-and I didn't feel it back. It wouldn't be fair to her to rip her heart out that way. And I would never, ever forgive myself for hurting her.
"It's okay," she almost-whispered. "Really."
There wasn't anything much to say. So I reached over, took her hand, and squeezed gently. After a while, I said, "Molly, I don't think it's ever going to happen. But if it ever does, the first time damned well isn't going to be like that. You deserve better. So do I."
Then I put both hands back on the wheel and kept on driving. I had someone else to pick up before I gave the Redcap my version of a hostage crisis.
* * *
We got to Chez Carpenter around five, and I parked the Munstermobile on the street. It was the single gaudiest object for five miles in every direction, and it blended in with the residential neighborhood about as well as a goose in a crowd of puffer fish. I turned off the engine and listened to it clicking. I didn't look at the house.
I got out of the car, shut the door, and leaned back against it, still not looking at the house. I didn't need to. I'd seen it often enough. It was a gorgeous Colonial home, complete with manicured landscaping, a pretty green lawn, and a white picket fence.
The grasshopper got out of the car and came around to stand beside me. "Dad's at work. The sandcrawler is gone," Molly noted, nodding toward the driveway where her mother always parked their minivan. "I think Mom was going to take the Jawas trick-or-treating at the Botanic Gardens this afternoon. So the little ones won't be home."
Which was Molly's way of telling me that I didn't have to face my daughter right now, and I could stop being a coward.
"Just go get him," I said. "I'll wait here."
"Sure," she said.
Molly went up to the front door and knocked. About two seconds after she did that, something huge slammed against the other side of the door. The heavy door jumped in its frame. Dust fell from the roof over the porch, dislodged by the impact. Molly stiffened and backed away. A second later, there was another thump, and another, and the sound of the frantic scratching of claws on the door. Then more thumping.
I hurriedly crossed the street to stand beside Molly on the lawn, facing the front door.
The door wiggled, then opened unsteadily, as if being manipulated by someone with his hands full. Then the storm door flew open and something grey and shaggy and enormous shot out onto the porch. It cleared the porch railing in a single bound, hurtled across the ground and the little picket fence, and hit me in the chest like a battering ram.